Would AI and Aliens be moral in a godless universe?

Black hole

Last time I attempted to grapple with R. Scott Bakker’s intriguing essay on what kinds of philosophy aliens might practice and remaining dizzied by questions. Luckily, I had a book in my possession which seemed to offer me the answers, a book that had nothing to do with the a modern preoccupation like question of alien philosophers at all, but rather a metaphysical problem that had been barred from philosophy except among seminary students since Darwin; namely, whether or not there was such a thing as moral truth if God didn’t exist.

The name of the book was Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism (contemporary philosophy isn’t all that sharp when it comes to titles), by Erik J. Wielenberg. Now, I won’t even attempt to write a proper philosophical review of Robust Ethics for the book has been excellently dissected by a proper philosopher, John Danaher in pieces such as this, this, and this, and one more. Indeed, it was Danaher’s thoughtful reviews that had resulted in Wielenberg’s short work being in the ever changing pile of books that shadows my living room floor like a patch of unextractable mold. It was just the book I needed when thinking about what types of intelligence might be possessed by extraterrestrials.

It’s a problem I ran into when reviewing David Roden’s Post-human Life that goes like this: while it is not so much easy, as it is that I don’t simply draw a blank for me to conceive of an alternative form of intelligence to our human type, it’s damned near impossible for me to imagine what our an alternative form to our moral cognition and action would consist of and how it would be embedded in these other forms of intelligence.

The way Wielenberg answers this question would seem to throw a wrench into Bakker’s idea of Blind Brain Theory (BBT) because what Bakker is urging is that we be suspicious of our cognitive intuitions because they were provided by evolution not as a means of knowing the truth but in terms of their effectiveness in supporting survival and reproduction, whereas Wielenberg is making the case that we can generally rely on these intuitions ( luckily) because of the way they have emerged out of a very peculiar human evolutionary story one which we largely do not share with other animals. That is, Wielenberg argument is anthropocentric to its core and therein lies a new set of problems.

His contention, in essence, is that the ability of human being to perceive moral truth arises as a consequence of the prolonged period of childhood we experience in comparison to other animals. In responding to the argument by Sharon Street that moral “truth” would seem quite different from the perspective of lions, or bonobos, or social insects, than from a human standpoint Wielenberg  responds:

Lions and bonobos lack the nuclear family structure. Primatologist Frans de Waal suggests the “[b] onobos have stretched the single parent system to the limit”. He also claims that an essential component of human reproductive success is the male-female pair bond which he suggests “sets us apart from the apes more than anything else” . These considerations provide some support for the idea that a moralizing species like ours requires an evolutionary path significantly different from that of lions or bonobos. (171)

The prolonged childhood of humans necessitates both pair-bonding and “alloparents” that for Wielenberg shape and indeed create our moral disposition and perception in a way seen in no other animals.

As for the social insects scenario suggested by Street, the social insects (termites, ants, and many species of bees and wasps) are so different from us that it’s hard to evaluate whether such a scenario is nomologically possible.  (171).

In a sense the ability to perceive moral truth, what Wielenberg  characterizes as “brute facts” such as “rape is wrong”, emerges out of the slow speed in cultural/technological knowledge requires to be passed from adults to the young. Were children born fully formed with sufficient information for their own survival (or a quick way of gaining needed capacity/knowledge) neither the pair bond nor the care of the “village” would be necessary and the moral knowledge that comes as a result of this period of dependence/interdependence might go undiscovered.

Though I was very much rooting that Wielenberg would have succeeded in providing an account of moral realism absent any need for God, I believe that in these reflections found in the very last pages of Robust Ethics he may have inadvertently undermined that very noble project.

I have complained before about someone like E.O. Wilson’s lack of imagination when it comes to alternative forms of intelligence on worlds other than our own, but what Wielenberg has done is perhaps even more suffocating. For if the perception of moral truth depends upon the evolution of creatures dependent on pair bonding and alloparenting then what this suggests is that due to our peculiarities human beings might be the only species in the universe capable of perceiving moral truth. This is not the argument Wielenberg likely hoped he was making at all, and indeed is more anthropocentric than the argument of some card carrying theists.

I suppose Wielenberg might object that any intelligent aliens would likely require the same extended period of learning as ourselves because they too would have arrived at their station via cultural/technological evolution which seems to demand long periods of dependent learning. Perhaps, or perhaps not. For even if I can’t imagine some biological species where knowledge from parent to offspring is directly passed, we know that it’s possible- the efficiency of DNA as a cultural storage device is well known.

Besides, I think it’s a mistake to see biological intelligence as the type of intelligence that commands the stage over the long duree- even if artificial intelligence, like children, need to learn many task through actual experience rather than programming “from above” the  advantages of AI over the biological sort is that it can then share this learning directly with fully grown copies of itself a like Neo in the Matrix its’ “progeny” can say “I know kung fu” without ever having themselves learned it. According to Wielenberg’s logic it doesn’t seem that such intelligent entities would necessarily perceive brute moral facts or ethical truths, so if he is right an enormous contraction of the potential scale of the moral universe would have occurred . The actual existence of moral truth limited to perhaps one species in a lonely corner of an otherwise ordinary galaxy would then seem to be a blatant violation of the Copernican principle and place us back onto the center stage of the moral narrative of the universe- if it has such a narrative to begin with.

The only way it seems one can hold that both the assertion of moral truth found in Godless Normative Realism and the Copernican principle can be true would be if the brute facts of moral truth were more broadly perceivable across species and conceivably within forms of intelligence that have emerged or have been built on the basis of an evolutionary trajectory and environment very different from our own.

I think the best chance here is if moral truth were somehow related to the truths of mathematics (indeed Wielenberg thinks the principle of contradiction [which is the core of mathematics/logic] is essential to the articulation and development of our own moral sense which begins with the emotions but doesn’t end there.) Like us, other animals seem not only to possess forms of moral cognition that rival our own, but even radical different types of creatures such as social insects are capable of discovering mathematical truths about the world, the kind of logic that underlies moral reasoning, something I explored extensively here.

Let’s hope that the perception of moral truth isn’t as dependent on our very peculiar evolutionary development as Wielenberg’s argument suggest, for if that is the case that particular form of truth might be so short lived and isolated in the cosmos that someone might be led to the mistaken conclusion that it never existed at all.


Do Extraterrestrials Philosophize?


The novelist and philosopher R. Scott Bakker recently put out a mind blowing essay on the philosophy of extraterrestrials, which isn’t as Area 51 as such a topic might seem at first blush.  After all, Voltaire covered the topic of aliens, but if a Frenchman is still a little too playful for your philosophical tastes , recall that Kant thought the topic of extraterrestrial intelligence important to cover extensively as well, and you can’t get much more full of dull seriousness than the man from Koeningsberg.

So let’s take an earnest look at Bakker’s alien philosophy…well, not just yet. Before I begin it’s necessary to lay out a very basic version of the philosophical perspective Bakker is coming from, for in a way his real goal is to use some of our common intuitions regarding humanoid aliens as a way of putting flesh on the bones of two often misunderstood and not (at least among philosophers) widely held philosophical positions- eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory, both of which, to my lights at least, could be consumed under one version of the ominous and cool sounding, philosophy of Dark Phenomenology. Though once you get a handle of on dark phenomenology it won’t seem all that ominous, and if it’s cool, it’s not the type of cool that James Dean or the Fonz before season 5 would have recognized.

Eliminativism, if I understand it,  is the full recognition of the fact that perhaps all our notions about human mental life are suspect in so far as they have not been given a full scientific explanation. In a sense, then, eliminativism is merely an extension of the materialization (some would call it dis-enchantment) that has been going on since the scientific revolution.

Most of us no longer believe in angels, demons or fairies, not to mention quasi-scientific ideas that have ultimately proven to be empty of content like the ether or phlogiston. Yet in those areas where science has yet to reach, especially areas that concern human thinking and emotion, we continue to cling to what strict eliminativists believe are likely to be proved similar fictions, a form of myth that can range from categories of mental disease without much empirical substance to more philosophical and religiously determined beliefs such as those in free will, intentionality and the self.            

I think Bakker is attracted to eliminativism because it allows us to cut the gordian knot of problems that have remained unresolved since the beginning of Western philosophy itself. Problems built around assumptions which seem to be increasingly brought into question in light of our increasing knowledge of the actual workings of the human brain rather than our mere introspection regarding the nature of mental life. Indeed, a kind of subset of eliminativism in the form Blind Brain Theory essentially consists in the acknowledgement that the brain was designed for a certain kind of blindness by evolution.

What was not necessary for survival has been made largely invisible to the brain without great effort to see what has not been revealed. Philosophy’s mistake from the standpoint of a proponent of Blind Brain Theory has always been to try to shed light upon this darkness from introspection alone- a Sisyphean tasks in which the philosopher if not made ridiculous becomes hopelessly lost in the dark labyrinth of the human imagination. In contrast an actually achievable role for philosophy would be to define the boundary of the unknown until the science necessary to study this realm has matured enough for its’ investigations to begin.

The problem becomes what can one possibly add to the philosophical discourse once one has taken an eliminativists/Blind Brain position? Enter the aliens, for Bakker manages to make a very reasonable argument that we can use both to give us a plausible picture of what the mental life and philosophy of intelligent “humanoid” aliens might look like.

In terms of understanding the minds of aliens eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory are like addendums to evolutionary psychology. An understanding of the perceptual limitations of our aliens- not just mental limitations, but limitations brought about by conditions of time and space should allow us to make reasonable guesses about not only the philosophical questions, but the philosophical errors likely to be made by our intelligent aliens.

In a way the application of eliminativism and BBT to intelligent aliens put me in mind of Isaac Asimov’s short story Nightfall in which a world bathed in perpetual light is destroyed when it succumbs to the fall of  night. There it is not the evolved limitations of the senses that prevent Asimov’s “aliens” from perceiving darkness but their being on a planet that orbits two suns and keep them bathed in an unending day.

I certainly agree with Bakker that there is something pregnant and extremely useful in both eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory, though perhaps not so much it terms of understanding the possibility space of “alien intelligence” as in understanding our own intelligence and the way it has unfolded and developed over time and has been embedded in a particular spatio-temporal order we have only recently gained the power to see beyond.

Nevertheless, I think there are limitations to the model. After all, it isn’t even clear the extent to which the kinds of philosophical problems that capture the attention of intelligence are the same even across our own species. How are we to explain the differences in the primary questions that obsess, say, Western versus Chinese philosophy? Surely, something beyond neurobiology and spatial-temporal location is necessary to understand the the development of human philosophy in its various schools and cultural guises including how a discourse has unfolded historically and the degree to which it has been supported by the powers and techniques to secure the survival of some question/perspective over long stretches of time.

There is another way in which the use of eliminativism or Blind Brain Theory might lead us astray when it come to thinking about alien intelligence- it just isn’t weird enough.When the story of the development of not just human intelligence, but especially our technological/scientific civilization is told in full detail it seems so contingent as to be quite unlikely to repeat itself. The big question I think to ask is what are the possible alternative paths to intelligence of a human degree or greater and to technological civilization like or more advanced than our own. These, of course, are questions for speculative philosophy and fiction that can be scientifically informed in some way, but are very unlikely to be scientifically answered. And if if we could discover the very distant technological artifacts of another technological civilization as the new Milner/Hawking project hopes there remains no way to reverse engineer our way to understand the lost “philosophical” questions that would have once obsessed the biological “seeds” of such a civilization.

Then again, we might at least come up with some well founded theories though not from direct contact or investigation of alien intelligence itself. Our studies of biology are already leading to alternative understanding of the way intelligence can be embeded say with the amazing cephalopods. As our capacity from biological engineering increases we will be able make models of, map alternative histories for, and even create alternative forms of living intelligence. Indeed, our current development of artificial intelligence is like an enormous applied experiment in an alternative form of intelligence to our own.

What we might hope is that such alternative forms of intelligence not only allow us to glimpse the limits of our own perception and pattern making, but might even allow us to peer into something deeper and more enchanted and mystical beyond. We might hope even more deeply that in the far future something of the existential questions that have obsessed us will still be there like fossils in our posthuman progeny.